Joshua Pila is an associate at Dow Lohnes, PLLC in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at JPila@dowlohnes.com
Lawyers love definitions. We revel in Defined Terms with capital letters, we argue for hours over the meaning of a seemingly inconsequential word, and we rely on internal or external definitions to complete our everyday work of interpreting statutes, regulations, and contracts. As every young lawyer knows, however, definitions can pose a double-edged sword when they underlie stereotypes, limit opportunities, and cause interpersonal conflicts.
Definitions pose especially severe challenges for law students and lawyers with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities entering the legal profession face a basic question about the very definition of “disability” itself. As you will read next in this issue, in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, Congress has broadened the legal definition of disability after federal courts repeatedly limited the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the legal workforce, however, the hurdle comes more from the label “disabled” than from a legal definition.
At a recent conference for the National Association for Law Students with Disabilities (NALSWD) where I served as a panelist, a single question came up dozens of times: “Should I tell people that I have a disability?” While some people have noticeable disabilities, such as paralysis or vision impairments, others have “hidden” disabilities, such as hearing impairments, neurological disabilities, or psychiatric disabilities. These individuals must first decide whether to “self-identify” as a person with a disability. Self-identification brings risks of stereotypes, employers concerned about expensive accommodations, and a negative feeling of being different from others.
Lawyers with disabilities often are defined into a box of certain job opportunities. Young attorneys with disabilities often are steered into government or public interest disability advocacy career paths. While these career paths offer great rewards, I also know of young lawyers with disabilities in large multinational law firms; regional, local, and solo firms; academia; and judicial clerkships. Lawyers with disabilities provide diverse viewpoints, exceptional skills, and strong drive and dedication that can be an asset to a variety of legal employers. In an inclusive and diverse environment, self-identification as a lawyer with a disability also can bring rewards of reasonable accommodations, self-confidence, and mutual understanding.
Young attorneys are the most poised to create this inclusive environment, especially because of our comfort level with new technology. Simple actions, such as communicating with a hearing-impaired colleague through e-mail rather than the telephone or using a document format acceptable to screen readers for people with vision impairments can help integrate bright, dedicated lawyers with disabilities into the profession.
In the past several years, the American Bar Association has made great strides in creating a more inclusive legal profession for law students and lawyers with disabilities. By raising awareness, creating mentorship opportunities, and supporting attorneys with disabilities, the ABA seeks to encourage individuals with disabilities to rise above definitions that pose hurdles and use definitions to create building blocks that assist client service, professional development, and personal growth.
The ABA’s mentor program for lawyers and law students with disabilities ( www.abanet.org/disability/subcommittee/mentor.shtml
) has begun the process of allowing young lawyers to define themselves not by a label, but as attorneys, which helps individuals answer the “self-identification” question.
The ABA also has worked to increase the job opportunities for lawyers with disabilities. In 2006 the ABA held the first National Conference on the Employment for Lawyers with Disabilities. The next conference is planned for June 2009 and aims to encourage legal employers to sign pledges to promote diversity and inclusion within the workplace with an emphasis on hiring and retaining lawyers with disabilities; develop best practices for promoting disability diversity and inclusion; and identify legal employers and work settings that are models for the profession. For more information, visit www.abanet.org/disability/conferences/09conference.shtml
Georgetown University Law Center and the University of Arizona School of Law have created the IMPACT Career Fair for Law Students with Disabilities ( www.law.arizona.edu/impact/
Through participation in programs like these as well as online forums (e.g., www.deafattorneys.com
), law students and lawyers with disabilities have the tools to succeed in the legal profession.